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What is the value of an imperfect human life? In Baby (Bao Bei Er), a distraught father decides to let his severely disabled baby die rather than face years of operations with no guarantee of survival, but he is opposed by an almost-18-year-old girl who was born with grave birth defects herself and who tenaciously fights to save the child’s life. Anyone turned off by the plot of writer-director Liu Jie’s glimpse into ugly reality should think again. Though shot in a gritty, realistic style, it is so much more than filmed social drama. The single-minded focus of the screenplay, coupled with a standout performance by the even more focused Yang Mi, produces a fast-paced emotional chiller that makes the audience consider the value of human life and the importance of championing it against a patriarchal society and indifferent health system.
All of Liu’s films have dealt realistically with social issues and even his 2016 remake of the South Korean suspense thriller, Hide and Seek, deals with mental illness. Though that effort wasn’t a very successful venture into the mainstream, it appears to have taught him the value of taut writing, editing and pacing. Often the clash of delicate feelings in his otherwise moving films like De Lan lose their emotional impact by being too spun out. Not so here, where every scene leads into the next in an escalating spiral of raised stakes. Boasting Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien as executive producer and Wild Bunch repping for world sales, Baby could become Liu’s breakthrough art film, following its San Sebastian and Toronto bows.
There’s a great deal of information about how the Chinese deal with unwanted children tucked away in the storyline. Meng (Yang) is about to turn 18, the age limit for living with the foster family who took her in when she was a sick tyke of 2. Director Wang (Wang Yanjun), who runs the local child welfare agency and has known Meng since she was an infant, kindly but firmly informs her she has to move out of her mother’s dilapidated two-room house and return to the institution. It’s the law. The girl’s sincere protests that she has to cook for and take care of the old lady she loves are to no avail.
This critical situation pushes her to accept a janitor’s job in a hospital, which is really too physically demanding for her frail body. She’s in denial about having a disability, no matter how much she huffs and puffs to catch her breath. What keeps her going is her determination to beat the cruel state system that wants to separate her from her mother.
It is in the hospital that she overhears a tired, befuddled Mr. Xu (Guo Jingfei) being pressed by doctors to immediately authorize an operation on his newborn daughter – or take her home, which is tantamount to a death sentence for the severely ill baby.
Meng is profoundly shaken, because she had the same congenital malformations when she was born. Obviously she survived, but only after six highly uncertain operations. It crushed her to be abandoned by her parents and placed in foster care paid for by the state. Thus refusing to accept Xu’s decision (which he makes without consulting his wife) to let his baby die without treatment, Meng turns into a one-woman crusader and, ignoring her own powerlessness, is determined to save the baby.
Though the hospital, police, law and state all agree that the father has an absolute right to decide on his child’s treatment or nontreatment, she maddeningly refuses to give up. Racing against time, she uses sign language to convince a friend she grew up with, the deaf-mute Xiao Jun, to drive his delivery truck in a daring rescue in which she attempts to kidnap the abandoned baby. The scene is shot and edited as tautly as a thriller. Xiao (winningly played by Taiwanese actor Lee Hong-chi from Thanatos, Drunk; also seen at TIFF in Cities of Last Things) doesn’t need words to make it known that his feelings for Meng go deep, overriding his common-sense fear that breaking the law is not a smart move for two humble people like themselves.
Yang is quite riveting as the stubborn, obsessive heroine. Her mission sometimes seems a little loony and fanatical, but there’s no denying that she turns around dead-end situations with her simple refusal to give up. Slowly, the viewer stops making allowances for Mr. Xu, the doctors, nurses, police and highly regulated health system, and embraces Meng’s assertion: “It’s murder.”
Some scenes are hard to watch, like her confrontation with the heartbroken father in his home, where his neighbors later scrawl insults on the door. But her efforts will have a healing effect on her life, too. The camera stays close to her as Yang treks breathlessly around the province, running from hospice to police station. It offers insights into contemporary working-class life at the same time it champions the value of human life, however flawed it may be.
Production companies: 3C Films Co., Nanjing Sino-Movie Media & Culture Co., Beijing Culture, Zhejiang Hengdian Film Co.
Cast: Yang Mi, Lee Hong-chi, Guo Jingfei, Wang Yanjun, Zhu Shaojun, Yan Surong
Director-screenwriter: Liu Jie
Producer: Gao Shan
Executive producer: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Director of photography: Florian J.E. Zinke
Production designer: Yuan Feng
Costume designers: Yuan Yuan, Liu Yuan
Editors: William Chang, Liao Ching-song
Music: Guo Sida
World sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
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